Michael Frayn has called Peter Nichols a dangerous writer. It’s easy to see why. The writer who gave us Privates on Parade and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (still one of the most uncomfortably funny plays about disability) in the same year wrote Passion Play and this `family comedy’.
First produced by the Bristol Old Vic in 1979, Born in the Gardens, launching Peter Hall’s sixth summer Bath festival season is a scary reminder of `the way we were’, evoking a little England of provincial insularity and terrifying casual prejudice. What’s more, Bristolian Nicholls who sets his play in Bristol ends up seducing us into believing that his two protagonists – the recently widowed Maud (Stephanie Cole) and her 40-something son, Maurice (Allan Corduner) - are somehow to be applauded. They have seen off the `invaders’ – older son, Hedley (Simon Shepherd), a Labour MP, and Maurice’s twin sister, Queenie (Miranda Foster) – both of whom having fled the nest have returned for their father’s funeral determined to offer mother and son a better life, `more freedom’.
But freedom is not something `Mo’ and Maud are interested in. They prefer the limitations of a life spent talking to the TV (Maud) and the cat (Mo). `A lot of us find it (freedom) confusing’, says Mo towards the end. He’d prefer to stay within the stricter confines of his antiquarianism – erotic books of the 19th century - and his beloved New Orleans jazz.
There is more than a whiff of Joe Orton about Born in the Gardens accentuated in John Gunter’s mock-Tudor heavy wood panelled set with its flower strewn coffin sharing the same living room space with Mo’s drum-set and stuttering strip-lighting. Nothing in the house quite works, a bit like Maud’s conversation and vocabulary spattered as it is with malapropisms (condoms for condominium, aphrodisiac for Afro hairstyle) and surreal juxtapositions. `You can see why I fell for him’, she remarks of the withered corpse of her husband in the coffin.
Born in the Gardens is not exactly a belly-laugh in Stephen Unwin’s quiet production. It’s too disorientating and shocking for that. Nor is it quite a `state of the nation’ play though there is any amount of waspish commentary expressed by both Hedley and Queenie (now living in LA) about societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Nor does Nicholls seem particularly interested in pursuing lines of enquiry into why Maud has turned a blind eye to various family aberrations: Dad was both alcoholic and it seems an abuser of his daughter. Queenie and Mo enjoy, let’s say, a heightened sibling relationship.
In the end, Born in the Gardens is typical Nicholls: a little time bomb of provocation served up, by Cole and Corduner particularly, to sly perfection.